“I saw my little Una… so full of spirit and life that she was life itself. And then I looked at my poor dying mother, and seemed to see the whole of human existence at once, standing in the dusty midst of it.”
According to some, Orlando, inspired by the passionate real-life love Virginia Woolf shared with Vita Sackville-West, is “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — said by Vita’s own son. But the most charming love letter in literature might be quite shorter and older and inspired by a very different kind of love — the purest, tenderest love of a parent for their young child.
Fatherless since the age of four, achingly introverted, a man of “great, genial, comprehending silences” considered “handsomer than Lord Byron,” known to duck behind trees and rocks to avoid speaking with townspeople, Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) was an old bachelor of thirty-eight when he married Sophia Peabody — an intellectually voracious and artistically gifted old maid of thirty-three, a linchpin figure in Figuring, and sister to the titanic visionary Elizabeth Peabody, who had coined the term Transcendentalism.
When their first child — a daughter — was born in 1844, Hawthorne was a struggling writer about to turn forty. Seven years earlier, his first book — Twice-Told Tales, a retelling of classic anonymous stories — had hardly gotten into the hands of readers when the Panic of 1837 smote the young country as its first Great Depression. And so the young author had hardly made his name even among the most literary of his contemporaries — what Longfellow lauded as a “sweet, sweet book” had left the highly informed and discerning Margaret Fuller impressed, but with the impression that it was written by “somebody in Salem” assumed to be a woman.
Baby Una is named after the young, beautiful, and fearless dragon-imprisoned queen and king in the epic 1590 English poem. Faerie Queene, instantly filled Hawthorne with “a very sober and serious kind of happiness that springs from the birth of a child.” Una would later become the model for the heroine’s daughter in The Scarlet Letter — the 1850 novel that lifted Hawthorne out of poverty, abruptly ending his “many good years” as “the obscurest man of letters in America,” per his own recollection, to render him one of his country’s most celebrated artists.
The overnight success that was a lifelong dream came four years earlier when Una turned 2 and Una became a mother. Hawthorne began working as a surveyor at the Customs House, Salem. He worked there for almost three years at great expense to his writing. His love for his family sustained him through that time of creative decline and fed his artistic spirit. It was this period that brought him back to his life. He recorded these tender, vitalizing observations of the children’s daily doings and unfurling beings in a family notebook he shared with Sophia, posthumously included in the affectionate biography Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (public library) by their second child, Una’s brother Julian.
In the bleak midwinter of 1849, five weeks before Una’s fifth birthday, Hawthorne writes in the notebook:
It is her beauty that you will never see again. It might seem like it’s shining on her face. But, when you turn your head to appreciate it more, it disappears. It is as rare and valuable as an angel’s vision when it becomes visible. It is a transfiguration, — a grace, delicacy, or ethereal fineness, — which at once, in my secret soul, makes me give up all severe opinions that I may have begun to form about her. These are the occasions when we can see her soul. We see nothing external when she appears less beautiful. In truth, we only see one of her manifestations. For, without the establishment of rules, character is the succession and series of moods.
This latter insight, far predating the dawn of psychology as we know it, touches the eternal depths of human nature — as adults, we are always at our most childish when we allow the ceaselessly shifting weather systems of our moods to override our moral precepts, thrusting us back in time to those primal impulses of reflexive reaction, cutting us off from the capacity for reflective response that is the mark of maturity.
Una’s “real soul,” her father observes, is one of uncommon complementarity, in which all the polar potentialities of human nature coexist and are harmonized:
She is not afraid to express her emotions in a story, poem, or picture. She is often a rhinoceros-armor, which she uses to resist sentiment and tenderness. You would be mistaken for thinking she was marble or adamant. My impression is that her senses are more open to fiction than real life, just like so many sensitive people.
Una’s almost otherworldly syncopation of reason and emotion, of sympathy and stoicism, comes alive most vividly in a midsummer notebook entry Hawthorne penned while his mother was fast approaching “the drift called the infinite.”
Finding himself the strange fulcrum of the seesaw between life and death, Hawthorne observes his small daughter take a lively, compassionate interest in his dying mother’s suffering, begging to be let into the bedchamber to be at her grandmother’s side, role-playing convalescent and caretaker with her little brother. Hawthorne writes:
I know not what she supposes to be the final result to which grandmamma is approaching… There is something that almost frightens me about the child, — I know not whether elfish or angelic, but, at all events, supernatural. She steps so boldly into the midst of everything, shrinks from nothing, has such a comprehension of everything, seems at times to have but little delicacy, and anon shows that she possesses the finest essence of it, — now so hard, now so tender; now so perfectly unreasonable, soon again so wise. I sometimes see a part of her that I don’t believe is her human child. She seems to me like a ghost mixed with both good and bad, who haunts my house.
The next day — forty-five years and twenty-seven days after she had given birth to him — his mother died, with Hawthorne and his sisters at her side. His grief was consuming. Sophia recounted that she saw him, this quiet monolith of composure, come “near a brain fever.” But Hawthorne was his daughter’s father, his own seemingly unfeeling exterior armoring a tender and sensitive soul — perhaps that is why this duality so frightened him in Una. (Children, after all — like anyone we love — are mirrors for understanding ourselves, disquieting us most when they reflect what we most fear or struggle to comprehend in ourselves.)
The armor was removed as soon as the others left the room.
My eyes were slowly welling up with tears. I tried to keep them down, but it would not be; I kept filling up, till, for a few moments, I shook with sobs… Surely it is the darkest hour I ever lived.
Ten days after his mother’s death, Hawthorne was bluntly fired from his job at the Customs House when the new Whig administration took office. Hawthorne began to write. The Scarlet Letter that day, completing it with the same astonishing rapidity — six months — that John Steinbeck, who also worked a series of soul-hollowing jobs, would complete The Grapes of Wrath a century later.
Published the year of Darwin’s bittersweet reckoning with his own daughter’s mortality and sold by private subscription a century and a half before Patreon, The Scarlet Letter raised $500 for Hawthorne and his family, which helped them leave the sadnesses of Salem, sadnesses that had haunted him long before his season of losses — so much so that he had added the “w” in his surname to sever the association with his ancestor John Hathorne, the leading judge in the Salem witch trial.
The income earned from The Scarlet LetterHawthorne and the family moved to the Berkshires in a tiny red home. Herman Melville was at that house when he fell for him and dedicated his life to him. Moby-DickHawthorne
Years after her father’s death, Una recovered his final manuscript — the unfinished novel Septimius Felton, or the Elixir of Life — and, with the help of her friend Robert Browning, had it published in serial form in The Atlantic Monthly. She died five years later, at the age her mother had married her father, returning far too young to the supra-human mystery her father had always perceived in her — the mystery the sole possible meaning and redemption of which he had contoured long ago, when he and Una were both alive and his mother was no more. In the notebook entry recounting that darkest hour of his life at his mother’s deathbed in the high summer of 1849, he had written:
For a long time I knelt there, holding her hand… Afterwards I stood by the open window and looked through the crevice of the curtain. Strange contrast to the scenes on the death-bed, the sounds, laughs, and cries from the children came up in the chamber. Now, as I looked through the curtain, Una, the little girl with golden locks, was so gorgeous and filled with life, that she seemed to be life herself. Then I saw my mother in death and was able to look at the entire human experience at once. Oh, what a mockery, if what I saw were all, — let the interval between extreme youth and dying age be filled up with what happiness it might!
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